Late start to 2019 – Sillery to Vitry

(Skipper’s note: Loose plans for this year had seen us heading further north towards the Lille/Cambrai area for next winter. However with two of the three canal choices we had to get up there currently closed half way through, we decided to go Route Four – and turn south – About Face . . . . )

So eventually – after moving house, a full service and eight new solid solar panels on the roof (well done Skips) we are off, heading south on the Canal L’Aisne à La Marne – and within 10 minutes and under grey skies we met our first lock – my first for 8 ½ months!  Luckily I remembered what to do, and had good French instructions to aid me..

We had half a plan to go all the way to to Condé-sur-Marne that day, but after two hours, 3 locks, and the threat of an ‘orage’ (thunderstorm) with 98kph winds we decided to moor up on an old industrial wharf in a basin at Sept-Saulx.

The wharf edge was decorated by poppies, my favourite flower, so we took this to be a good omen and tied up. Sitting back and planning next steps it occurred to us that we did not have canal guides for the two canals we were aiming for, and it is not easy to have post delivered along the canal ….. however a call to Damien, the Capitaine we got to know so well during our 5 week sojourn at Chalons-en-Champagne last year, and somewhere we would be passing in two days time, resulted in agreement for the new guides to be delivered there.

Skipper’s aside: I have, for as long as I am still a European, furled my Red Duster and raised a defaced European Union flag – nailing my colours to the mast as it were.

I find this photo of Lesley’s poppies doubly poignant, being a symbol of the utter futility of the millions of young European lives destroyed in the First World War by the machinations of a small number of power crazed autocrats determined to reorganise obsolete frontiers for their own benefit.

At the time of writing, my simple flag is a big plea to my countryfolk not to put those frontiers back in place.

Clouds gathering at Sept-Saulx

 We managed a walk round the village before holing up as dark clouds gathered and sure enough it did begin to rain – big fat drops that splattered the calm surface of the canal. Later thunder lightning and a strong wind joined in as forecast, although not anywhere near 98kph.

Panels still looking good though . . . .

Waiting for the Billy Tunnel green light

The next day it was still raining so we hung on until about 10am before setting off to Condé– a trip of  only 14.5 kms, but including a 2.3km tunnel and 8 locks. 

The Billy tunnel is described in the Du Breil canal guide as ‘attractive‘ – an odd word for a tunnel. But it is in a lovely area with a delightful mooring place to wait your turn, and runs in a good straight line so that you can see light at both ends of the tunnel all through your journey. We waited for a full sized commercial barge to emerge before it was our turn.

Captain Stu also noticed this time (it was Calliope’s 3rdvoyage through) that the commercial barge leaving was hugging the towpath side. On closer inspection in the half light, the wooden rail just above the water line that we previously thought was a crash barrier turns out to be a rubbing rail, and if you allow yourself to get ‘sucked’ onto it (Stu’s words) you slide through ‘like a rocket slid on rails (Stu’s words).

Truly marvelous’, Stu

We ate lunch during the wonderfully simple ‘chained’ set of 8 locks down, ie the next one prepared and opened for us as we approached.  And at 2.30 we arrived and moored up at Condé-sur-Marne; day 2 of our 2019 odyssey successfully completed.

Moored at Conde-sur-Marne with lock number 8 behind us

“So far so good,” says Captain Stu.

While the Captain became galley slave I took myself off to find what the maps called an aqueduct. And this is what I discovered – a c19 way to take water from the river below up into the hills. The tower is/was a pumping house. I later met a school teacher from the village who told me that the water is for the canal, nit for agriculture as I first thought.

I returned to the French equivalent of sausage and mash with onion gravy – mmmmm – and a quiet evening aboard reading more of my latest Ian Rankin.

The only disturbance was watching another storm moving in and waiting for the heavy rain and thunder. Still, there’s nothing finer than been tucked up in the wheelhouse in a good old proper storm is there?

Next morning was far better – grey skies, but no rain – so we slipped the ropes and set off back down the Canal Lateral de la Marne towards Chalons en Champagne, our home for 5 weeks last Autumn and where we planned to collect our maps.

We were accompanied along the way by a casual stow away with an orange head.

As we came into Chalons we were amazed to see a tall tall crane above the cathedral, with a group of people seemingly clinging on at the top! I watched with a certain degree of shock, wondering what they were doing – maybe protesting about something, as the French often do. And then I saw them begin to slide down one at a time! They look like flies in these photos, but zoom in!

It was only later when we had moored up that I discovered this was part of some elaborate preparations for a huge sound and light show occurring at the cathedral in two days time, sadly after we expected to have left Châlons.

The Furies festival, taking place in the park adjacent to the mooring

Ah well, Châlons still saw to it that we were entertained. We had managed to arrive one day onto the famous Furies festival. This is a 5 day free festival held mainly at outside venues around the city, with links (I think) to the Circus school here. It focuses on the bizarre and surreal, a mixture of street theatre, circus and music.

Stewart and I had an early evening wander round, and I found plenty to intrigue; their festival currency of ‘the furie’, the airstream crepe cafe, the music of Babil Sabir 2 (google them!), the strange play illustrating the aftermath of a car crash, and the very unusual tightrope strip and sex-act-on-the-wire show (luckily rather blurred on account of my shock)!

And you know you are in the Champagne region when only alcohol that the relaxed pop-up bar by the lake serves is 2 types of champagne, ratafia and rosé wine!

The plan was to carry on next day, with our new maps to guide us. However they were not delivered by 2pm, Captain’s cut-off time for slipping away on what turned out to be another wet and windy afternoon. Well at least we are near Stewart’s favourite boulangerie, so I got some of their quiche for a comforting supper.

And in the end we were waiting another two days for our new map books to arrive. In fact it was so windy most of those 48 hours that we were quite pleased to be tied up in such a nice town.

It also have me two more days of the Furies festival! Friday was fun with the crazy ‘A Good Place’ team, where their snaking waiting crowd was encouraged to join in dance routines and other entertainment; an incomprehensible (it was in French) promenade in the Jardin d’Anglaise with the two male performers running and shouting amongst the audience and round the park; and a bit of trapeze mastery when the wind died down.

Sally, Tin Tin, Morphios and Stu

Being in Châlons on Saturday also gave me the opportunity to go to the market and buy some delicious fruit, veg and bread. We took a stroll down to the River Marne in the afternoon and returned to find our lovely neighbours on Pavot suggesting champagne in the ‘Cosy Bar’ by the lake with their dogs. How could we possibly refuse?

The evening developed into a festival before I went into the centre of town to watch a great tightrope performer in the square, with a backdrop of some of Chalon’s beautiful old buildings.

Then a rapid march back to the Cathedral for one of the most dramatic and astonishing spectacles of my life. It began with an angel appearing on the roof of the Cathedral.

Then other angels appeared, in ones, twos and threes, seemingly from the night sky. As they ‘flew’ towards earth they began to scatter white feathers which gently drifted down on us mortals below.

The angels became ever more daring, and with ever more feathers

Until finally we were showered with feathers from every direction. The delight that swept the crowd was infectious and people behaved as if in a snowstorm, throwing feathers in the sir, dancing to the music, and laughing.

I am so glad that I didn’t miss this!

My boat is covered in feathers. Did I miss something?

Next day we were up on time and raring to go. There was a quick run to the boulangerie for fresh bread, and then we set off south down the Canal Lateral de La Marne watching Châlons fade away in the distance.

Before too long we were at the first lock, pleased to see the green and red lights that told us the lock was being made ready for us

And on we went down past the villages and silos, the winding holes for big barges to turn round, locks and countryside.

Occasionally we saw wildlife, usually herons. There are plenty of young herons trying out their fishing skills at this time of year.

He’ll not catch much sat on that bollard . . .

He’s not sitting. He’s standing! Look closer.

Our lunch time stop at La Chaussee sur Marne

We carried on until we reached Soulange, knowing it to be a peaceful rural mooring and just right following city dwelling in Châlons. I have to admit that we were a little disappointed when another small cruiser squeezed onto the jetty behind us – notwithstanding that it is important always to welcome and help others to moor – even if they are rather noisy.

I took a walk over to the river Marne and along the bank for a while. There was a lovely view back to Soulange church through the undergrowth, and tranquil scenes of the river.

It seemed to be the first day of the dragonflies – they were everywhere, flitting about just out of range of my camera most of the time, but I did get a few ‘on film’.

Then back to our mooring to discover that old friends Matthew and Helen on a sister Piper barge Havelock had arrived – we shared a jetty with them at the T&K marina on the Thames when we were first in the water. A rare treat, although as Stewart was a bit under the weather it was just me who was able to enjoy their company.

Soulanges sunset

The day finished with one of the most beautiful canal sunsets I have seen, ah La Belle France.

Next day was destined to see us down to Vitry-en-Francois, and the end of our known waterways. We would be launching into a new canal by afternoon, so we enjoyed the last of the Canal lateral de la Marne.

I think that the most memorable ‘look back’ was to the quarry mooring where we stayed last year and our ropes were covered with blue butterflies.

Then at last, the junction at Vitry, and we turned left onto the Canal de La Marne au Rhin, and new vistas opened before us.

Onward and slightly upward – Canal de Garonne part one

mouth_of_garonne_canal

We entered the Canal de Garonne on a fine April afternoon, having expected to spend the night in the Port d’Embourchure at Toulouse because of a canal closure. However jst as we were picking our spot for the night our friendly eclusier Henri appeared and waved to let us know that the canal had re-opened; hooray!

start_of_canal_garonne

footbridge_to_stadium

We went through the brick bridge separating the port basin from the canal and were off on a long straight stretch. This included going past the football stadium, where a swing bridge is brought into operation on match days facilitate fans crossing to the game; no match today though.

start_of_canal

The sport that was in full swing was rowing, seemingly for a group of youngsters who had never rowed before. Their antics retying to set their boats in the right direction and not be under our prow!

lalande_lockWe reached the first écluse, Lalande,  and moved through without mishap. These locks are brick lined – different to the stone lining we usually see. They also have an overspill taken just above the lock, round into it’s own stream, sometimes trough a mill, and back into he canal below the lock; more of this later.

lacoutensort_lockAhead of us at the second lock, Lacourtensort, we could see a min-queue of two boats waiting to go down. Stu slowed our speed and we almost drifted along towards the ‘pole-that-we must-not touch-until-those-boats-have set-the-lock-in-motion.’ It seemed to take ages, and when they did finally move ahead into the lock the first seemed to get stuck in the entrance. We watched what we could see through the binoculars, and finally they were in and going down. I turned the lock pole correctly and we moved forward.

Now it was our turn and as we entered there was our friend Henri, yellow control box round his waist. Yes, the lock was out-of-order, but his magic yellow box could see us through. Merci Henri. We bid him au revoir and à bientôt as we steamed on downstream.

fenouillet_lockThere was no waiting at the next écluse; pole turned, lock filled, gates opened, we went in, tied up, button pressed and the gates closed …. almost! We stood in the sun awaiting the descent, but nothing. Just an attractive old lock house and an old Citroen Dianne bleu.

fenouillet_lock_1

After a while Stewart noticed that the top gate was not quite shut. He tried to close it; no luck. So he pressed the ‘please come and help us’ button; no reply. He tried again, I tried, and I tried again; no-one answered. Hmmm.

It’s very nice in this lock. We wouldn’t have minded staying there for the night. But we thought we had better keep trying. I phoned a number written in biro on the control panel; no answer, but in broken French I left a message. Then, the third time lucky approach – I looked up the number of the canal office in Toulouse and phoned that; success.

[While we waited for the éclusier cavalry to arrive I thought I would get a record of the Canal de Garonne locks – here it is – water taken off above the lock into a pond, then reinjected below the lock. Also the way to tie up is different – poles fore and aft down which the rope can slide.]

We had so much success with our various phone calls that two éclusiers turned up – Henri and his colleague. A bit of gate opening and closing and the system had re-booted.

As we were leaving I asked if there was anywhere to moor nearby. My French must be improving because he understood the question and I understood the answer – under the second bridge along was a nice quiet mooring.

Although sounding strange, we though we would give it a try. It was strangely lovely – an almost unused bridge at Fenouillet with grassy banks and pleasant walks.

fenouillet_church

I went for a short walk around the village and its surrounding lakes, got lost, and returned an hour and a half later! The village is a bit of a dormitory for Toulouse, but pleasant nonetheless, with a good group of small shops and a pretty church.

The sun was sinking as I returned, the water calm and reflective.

We considered staying a second night, but with storms forecast for Sunday and a public holiday with closed locks Monday we decided to crack on downstream the next morning. We planned an 18km journey with 6 locks to Grisolles.

lespinasse_lock_4

This was a pleasant and uneventful journey through countryside and rural economy, alongside the railway track.

The first lock, Lespinasse, was a gentle 2.58m deep. As we left I caught a photo of the water coming back into the canal, typical as explained above of the Canal de Garonne.

There was an interesting stretch near Castelnau-d’Estrétefonds, firstly taking the canal over the river Hers on an aqueduct …..

castelnau_lock

….. then into a widening of the canal to allow barges to swing round into the lock entrance, which was at an angle to the aqueduct.

After a few hundred yards there was a second lock, taking Calliope down to continue in a straight line North West.

lunch_on_move

I was getting hungry by then so made a lunch out of bits and pieces we had on board and sat on the back deck in the sun. Sometimes barging is like a luxury cruise!

emballens_lockOne more lock before we would reach Grisolles, Emballens. We had to wait for a boat coming up so tied our 20m barge against a 4m pontoon and I held her in check until we could proceed.

[Gosh, that’s two photos of me in a row, even if one of them is only my knees.]

Our luck was holding as we arrived at Grisolles – the mooring below the bridge that we had hoped for was empty. We tied up, and stayed more than a week, moored just in front of the Salle de Fêtes, or village hall!  This was in part to allow me to go back to UK for the weekend and a most important football match – yes, Pompey are League Two Champions, against all the odds!.

In amongst the days that we were there we took a few walks around Grisolles and the surrounding area. It is a small, straightforward and very friendly town.

They are proud of the little bits of heritage still standing, including the church, market hall and some old buildings. I also found three new window shutter ‘figurines’ to ad to my collection.

We took a couple of walks up the steep steep hill looking over Grisolles – quite an effort and quite a view, over the town to the plains and river Garonne beyond.

We went up the hill a third time in order to walk to the local vinyard – Chateau Bellevue de Fôret. The water was almost more welcome than the wine by the time we arrived! And we were pleased to discover that if we bought some wine they would delver it to the barge, so we could scamper back down hill unencumbered, ready to enjoy a glass of 100% negrette grape.

grsolles_salle_de_fetes

Calliope, in full view of the Salle de Fetes

On 30th April we noticed tables outside the Salles de Fêtes, and drinks being set upon them. Two people from the crowd round the table emerged closed the grass and stated talking to us.  After a good bit of Franglais we discovered that they were setting up for a dance in the hall that night and were invited as guests of honour. Apparently to is customary in their village, Canals, to hold a party the evening before the May 1st Public Holiday. They downed the Ricard and whiskey in their plastic tumblers, and left to continue preparations. Needless to say we did attend the dance, were made most welcome and danced to a great band of accordion, saxophone, trumpet and keyboards. My those French can waltz!

grisolles_breakfast_1_may

Our new friend Gilles then invited himself for an English breakfast the next morning, saying he would bring the wine – and he did! First time I have washed egg and bacon down with vin rouge.

(He wasn’t so sure of the HP sauce though . . . . )

Gilles said that we should visit his village, Canals, just two kilometres away. I was tempted by the promise of a lovely lavoir and cycled over a couple of days later. The lavoir, just below and next to the little church, was quite a treat for a lavoir lover.

Overall the village had character; it seemed an honest place, that had some splendour in the past.

The walks around Grisolles were dotted and coloured by masses of a yellow flower which I alternately took to be marigold or dandelion!  Whichever it was, it created huge puffball seed heads, just right for children to blow away.

IMG_0927.jpgDuring our stay at Grisolles we had a grand day out to Montauban, taking the train one grey morning from Grisolles station.

We liked Montauban. As the day progressed the weather improved, so some photos are celestially bluer than others.

We liked the Pont Vielle, with its views to the old city, and decorative lamp posts – see how the sky changed!

We liked the ruined old mill with its disused lock and overgrown surrounds.

I loved the weir across the Tarn from the mill – the longest weir I have ever seen!

And in the trees of the long thin island just below the Pont Vielle we spotted a young heron or stork – maybe one of the rarer species for which the isle is famous.

montauban_convent

 

Stu and I both enjoyed the peacefulness atmosphere of the old convent cloisters, even though it is now part of the school of music. The young students seemed caught up in the atmosphere, talking quietly as they moved around the area.

 

montauban_square

 

 

 

 

 

The main square in the old city provided plenty of shade under red brick arches for welcome coffee and relaxing after all the walking.

 

montauban_lock_into_tarn

Just one more task before we set off back to Gristles – a look at the lock down from the canal into the Tarn – a voyage that we plane to take some time soon.  Looks ok, although the Tarn is still closed to boating traffic at the moment, waiting for the Spring currents to abate.

IMG_4210So back to Grisolles – its feeling like home now! But on my return from the UK we will be on the move again, onwards and slightly upwards, in a north westward direction towards Moissac.